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The Commons
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Randolph T. Holhut/The Commons

Former U.S. ambassador Peter Galbraith talked about the current geopolitical situations in Iraq, Iran, and North Korea before the Windham World Affairs Council on Oct. 20 in Brattleboro.

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Former ambassador looks at 'Axis of Evil' 15 years later

At Windham World Affairs Council, Galbraith assesses U.S. foreign policy toward Iran, Iraq, North Korea

Originally published in The Commons issue #431 (Wednesday, October 25, 2017). This story appeared on page A1.



BRATTLEBORO—In his 2002 State of the Union address, President George W. Bush coined a new phrase to describe Iran, Iraq, and North Korea: the Axis of Evil.

Fifteen years later, is the world any safer? Former U.S. ambassador and Townshend resident Peter Galbraith attempted to answer that question in his annual talk before the Windham World Affairs Council on Oct. 20.

“States like these, and their terrorist allies, constitute an axis of evil, arming to threaten the peace of the world,” Bush said in 2002. “The United States of America will not permit the world’s most dangerous regimes to threaten us with the world’s most destructive weapons.”

“How did that turn out?” asked Galbraith. “At the time he gave that speech, there were no more bitter enemies in the world than Iraq and Iran.”

The irony, he said, was that the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the removal of the regime of Saddam Hussein created a close alliance between Iran and Iraq.

“Bush did in four weeks what [Iranian leader] Ayatollah Khomeini couldn’t do in eight years,” Galbraith said, referring to the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s.

As for North Korea, Galbraith said it had a nuclear program in the 1990s, and after threats by the U.S., signed a multilateral treaty to stop making nuclear weapons. But, by 2002, it was clear that North Korea wasn’t abiding by the terms of the agreement and the Bush administration terminated the treaty.

North Korea responded by pulling out of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty — “the only nation ever to do so,” said Galbraith — and pushed ahead with developing nuclear weapons.

When North Korea tested its first nuclear weapon in 2006, Galbraith said the Bush administration “did exactly nothing,” adding that a policy of inaction continued through the Obama administration and continues under the Trump administration.

Little room to maneuver

Now, North Korea claims it has missiles capable of delivering a nuclear device to the West Coast of North America, and Galbraith said there is little room for the U.S. to maneuver.

“The options that exist now are very limited,” he said. “We’ve had a lot of dangerous rhetoric, rhetoric that can’t be backed up by action. If there is action, there’s the danger of a nuclear weapon hitting a U.S. city and the even greater danger that one hits Japan.”

As one of the largest and most powerful nations in the Middle East, Iran has long aspired to gain the technology to build a nuclear weapon. At the time of the “Axis of Evil” speech, it was much further along than Iraq, whose nuclear program was all but destroyed after the Persian Gulf War of 1990-91 and a decade of U.S. sanctions and periodic bombing attacks.

Iran’s nuclear program has been held in check with the signing of a multilateral agreement in 2015. The deal that was worked on — with the help of China, Russia, France, Great Britain, and Germany — called for Iran to give up its program and agree to invasive inspections in exchange for an end to the economic sanctions that were imposed nearly four decades ago.

Unfortunately, Galbraith said, President Trump wants the U.S. to walk away from that agreement and wants Congress to take the lead in formulating a new policy. That’s something that’s unfathomable to Galbraith.

“I can’t remember any time that any president from either party wanted to let Congress take the lead on foreign policy,” he said. “Our European allies do not accept that the United States can unilaterally break an international treaty that the six parties had [agreed] to.”

How big a threat?

Galbraith said it will be very difficult to get a new nuclear agreement with Iran, no matter what the Trump administration wants.

As for Iran, he believes the smartest course of action for that country is to keep calm and do nothing.

“If your goal is to diminish American leadership in the world, and your adversary [the U.S.] is doing such a good job destroying American leadership in the world [on its own], why would you get in the middle of it?”

The Trump administration’s rationale for terminating the Iran nuclear deal is based on that country’s alleged support for terrorism. How big a threat is Iran?

If anything, Galbraith said, Iraq had more to do with the Islamic State (ISIS) and its rise to power in 2014 than anything else. It happened when Iraq’s army collapsed and left $4 billion worth of U.S. weaponry for the insurgents to capture.

The only effective fighting force against the Islamic State was the Kurdish Peshmerga. Yet in the three years between the collapse of the Iraqi army and the defeat of the Islamic State on the battlefields of Iraq in recent weeks, Galbraith said the U.S. did almost nothing to support the Kurds.

Iraq, particularly Kurdistan, is the country in the “axis” with which Galbraith is most intimately involved. Currently an unpaid advisor to the Kurdistan Regional Government, he has deep ties to the Kurds going all the way back to when he was investigating the use of chemical weapons by Saddam Hussein against the Kurds in the 1980s.

Iraq and Turkey have long opposed Kurdish independence, but in a Sept. 25 referendum, Kurdish voters overwhelmingly approved it. With 72 percent turnout, 93 percent of voters backed independence.

At the last minute, Galbraith said, the Trump administration “launched a full-court diplomatic press” to stop the referendum, but they were ignored by the Kurds. Afterward, the vote was condemned by the Trump White House and Galbraith said the Kurds were threatened with dire consequences for acting on their desire for independence.

Last flight out

Immediately after the vote, Iraq suspended air travel to Kurdistan. Galbraith said he was on the last commercial flight out of Kurdish territory. Iraq is also blocking the flow of money into Kurdistan and attempting to seal its borders.

Last week, Galbraith said that Iraqi troops — and militia groups allied with Iran — battled the Peshmerga, the Kurdish military force, and seized control of the city of Kirkuk, the largest city in Kurdistan.

Galbraith said the governor of Kirkuk, Massoud Barzani, is one of his oldest friends. Galbraith said Barzani escaped after a tip-off from U.S. Special Forces officers that Shia militias were coming for him. Without that advance notice, he would likely have been killed.

And how did the Special Forces know that Barzani was marked for death? Galbraith said it was because they are embedded with both the Iraqi Army and the Peshmerga “and knew they were going to launch this attack.”

The Trump team in Washington “basically gave a green light” for the attack on the Kurds, Galbraith said. Why?

“Out of pique, because that’s how we run our government these days,” he said. “The Kurds didn’t listen to us, we warned them of dire consequences, and then we made sure [those consequences] would happen.”

The other factor was that the Trump team remains unwilling to admit that the U.S. invasion of Iraq “handed the country over to Iran. They did what is always done in foreign policy — when you make a huge error, you double down on it.”

In a chilling statement, Galbraith said that what is happening in Iraq “is similar to what happened in Yugoslavia ... you have a part of the country that has gone for independence, and instead of focusing on stopping the war, which is what we could have done successfully in Yugoslavia and could do in Iraq, we are essentially giving a green light to the aggressors. Think of Bosnia, and that’s what really lies ahead. And the message to those who really rely on the United States is one of betrayal.”

That is why he believes a straight line can be drawn between the fighting in Kurdistan and the Iran nuclear deal. The credibility of the U.S. hangs upon what happens next.

“If the United States breaks a treaty, which the U.S. says Iran is complying with, and does so over an issue unrelated to the substance of the treaty, but rather its conduct in the region, at the same time that the U.S. is backing Iran’s proxies in Iraq against its friends, who would want to make a deal with the United States?”

In short, Galbraith said the U.S. ”has become an unreliable country and American leadership in the world has been substantially eroded. Let us hope that the Europeans will stand up, for they are the ones who can be the leaders for a safer and saner world.”

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